Panama City

Summary: The first time Neal Caffrey dies, Peter's heart nearly stops too. Pre-series.

A/N: Inspiration from Vested Interest, in which Peter and Neal discuss Neal faking his own death on several occasions. Which got me to wondering, how did Agent Peter Burke take it the first time that happened? So I took the idea and ran with it.

He tracks Caffrey to Panama City – he doesn't always get to follow (there's a load of far simpler cases just waiting for the best agent in the NY division to give them a look, and the Bureau could use some easy wins), but when he does get a chance to travel, he makes it count. He knows Caffrey is planning something big, even if he doesn't know what, and he has to be there. So he follows a pretty trail of forged bonds and aliases, and he feels like he's being lead around by a string.

The kid is too damn smart for his own good, and it's going to cost him. Peter just hopes it doesn't cost him everything.

All the clues lead to a luxury car dealership in the city, and they arrive minutes too late. There's a theft of an expensive red Lamborghini, and it feels like Caffrey with a slightly tainted edge. Eye witnesses confirm, but Peter knows there's more going on here. Caffrey is many things, but he generally prefers the sidelines of danger instead of the thick of it. In, out, and disappear.

A high speed chase isn't really him at all, and it sets Peter's teeth on edge.

What are you doing, Kid?

Caffrey eludes capture long enough to speed the car off an embankment, where it lands spectacularly in a rushing river.

It sends Peter's heart careening over the edge as well. It's not supposed to end this way, he thinks, and for the longest time, it feels like he can't breathe. He's on the scene only a few minutes later, sees the wreckage for himself, sees easily that no one could survive that crash. Divers attempt to search the river, but the current is fast and heads out to the bay, and American criminals who get themselves killed in a stupid way are just not priority for them.

The coroner is quick to call it, perhaps too quick with no body to speak of it. No body, just a stuttering in Peter's heart and the thought – I can't believe it's over, replaying in his head. There's a death certificate with a familiar name on it now. It shouldn't hurt this much. Neal Caffrey is just a case. It shouldn't hurt at all.

He calls El late that night, and her voice is sleepy in his ear. It's been a week and a half, and she isn't sleeping well without him, and he's missing her terribly and wondering why he even came. He tells her what's happened, and says again what he's thought all day: It wasn't supposed to end this way.

"He stole a luxury car just to drive it off a cliff?" El asks, in that ultra-blunt way she has when she's trying to make sense of things for herself. "That..."

"Doesn't sound like Neal," he finishes, and a warm hope spreads through him.

They "officially" close the case on Caffrey, and Peter heads home.

El and Satchmo welcome him, with open arms and a wagging tail, and he ends up leaving work early for two nights because he can't stand being away, and in any case, he feels like he's playing a waiting game. Just waiting for something to surface.

It happens three days after he arrives back in New York. He's working on another case at the Bureau when the mail girl – he thinks her name is Lisa – comes in holding a large, rectangular package in her arms. "A big one today, Agent Burke," Lisa says, handing it over to him. "Wonder what it could be."

Peter takes it and knows immediately. There's no return address, and his own name is precisely written on the box. He grabs scissors from off his desk and slices through the packaging tape, then overturns it in his hand. Two things slide out: a painting and a note. He looks at the painting first and laughs. It's a lovely forgery, and Mona Lisa smiles back at him. He turns his attention to the note, picks it up between his thumb and index finger.

Short and to the point: Evidence for Agent Peter Burke.

He can't stop smiling, and his heart feels more settled than it has in days.

The next three times Caffrey fakes his death, Peter's stomach lurches upon seeing the name on another death certificate, but then he remembers that first time and digs, digs deeper until he finds the truth (of course, it didn't take much to see through the mauled-by-a-shark ploy).

And every time, the chase continues.

Years later, they're sitting on June's balcony on a warm evening, case files in their laps and beer and wine in hand, and Peter finally asks. "Do you remember when you sent me The Mona Lisa?"

Neal looks at him, a smile turning up his lips. "Fondly," he says. "That was just after I died, right?"

"For the first time," Peter affirms. "I always wondered, why did you send it to me? That was the first solid evidence I had that you faked your death, and it gave me enough proof to re-open your case."

"I never actually faked my death because of you, you know," says Neal, still smiling. "Got in over my head a couple times with some other criminals, got too much face time with some foreign authorities..."

"That doesn't answer the question. Even if you didn't do it because of me, you could have let me believe -"

"No, I couldn't have, Peter," Neal interrupts. "I...I didn't want that. And anyway, you would have figured it out the next time something that even sort of seemed like me popped up on your radar."

"That's true," Peter agrees.

"Any particular reason you're taking us on this trip down memory lane?" Neal asks, sipping his wine. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were being sentimental."

Peter hands him one of the case folders. "Nah. I'm just pretty sure Walter Sr. faked his own death ten years ago."

Neal raises an eyebrow incredulously. "Peter?"


"I'm pretty sure you could have lead with that."

Peter smiles, leans back and enjoys the view and the night sky falling around them. "We'll follow the lead tomorrow, it's not going anywhere. We've got the time," he says, and he's never been more grateful that they do.